Watchdog

Sex offenders might have been tipped to sweep

Fayette Co. Sheriff Kathy Witt spoke during a stalking awareness rally held in the Capitol Annex in Frankfort, Ky., Tuesday, January, 05, 2010. A group of advocates, prosecutors and law enforcement officials, who would like to see more changes to the stateÕs domestic violence laws, held the rally to broaden public awareness of stalking as a crime. The group also pledged support for a bill sponsored by House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, named after Amanda Ross, who was allegedly killed by her former fiance in September outside of her Lexington home. The bill would give judges the option of ordering a global positioning system or GPS tracking device for the most dangerous people accused of stalking or trying to harm a loved onePhoto by Charles Bertram | Staff
Fayette Co. Sheriff Kathy Witt spoke during a stalking awareness rally held in the Capitol Annex in Frankfort, Ky., Tuesday, January, 05, 2010. A group of advocates, prosecutors and law enforcement officials, who would like to see more changes to the stateÕs domestic violence laws, held the rally to broaden public awareness of stalking as a crime. The group also pledged support for a bill sponsored by House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, named after Amanda Ross, who was allegedly killed by her former fiance in September outside of her Lexington home. The bill would give judges the option of ordering a global positioning system or GPS tracking device for the most dangerous people accused of stalking or trying to harm a loved onePhoto by Charles Bertram | Staff

The Office of the Fayette County Sheriff said it is conducting an internal inquiry into reports that deputies gave several sex offenders advance warning about a federal sweep last month.

The sheriff's office acknowledged the inquiry last week after the Herald-Leader filed an open-records request for Lexington Division of Police memos that detailed the allegations.

Jennifer Miller, spokeswoman for the sheriff's office, said she couldn't provide specific details about the inquiry until it was complete. She said the department was hopeful that the inquiry wouldn't take long.

According to the police documents, at least five Lexington police detectives assisting the U.S. Marshals Service in the compliance checks heard convicted sex offenders say they had been tipped off that the checks would occur in the early part of the week of Dec. 5.

"One of the offenders who thought we would be coming on the previous day went as far as to leave a note on the door for the (Marshals) service advising them they had to go to the store for food and would return shortly," one of the reports said.

The two-day sweep in Fayette County, called "Operation Bluegrass Corral," occurred Dec. 6 and Dec. 7 and was organized by the U.S. Marshals Service. The operation — carried out by Lexington police, sheriff's deputies, state police, FBI agents and the state probation and parole office — was intended to make sure that 262 convicted sex offenders were complying with housing and federal and state guidelines.

Lexington police accumulated several pages of documents, but city spokeswoman Susan Straub said it was not a criminal investigation of the sheriff's office.

The reports were prepared at the request of city Public Safety Commissioner Clay Mason, a former FBI special agent, because the issue was brought to him by former colleagues from the FBI, the Office of the U.S. Attorney and the U.S. Marshals Service.

"There was discussion about some type of inquiry from the U.S. Attorney's office," Mason said, adding that the police reports were prepared in case a federal inquiry was launched.

Alerting sex offenders to a routine check does not appear to be a criminal offense, but officials say it's a problem.

"Personally, yes, I am concerned," U.S. Marshal Loren "Squirrel" Carl said Thursday. "I think it would concern any law enforcement agencies, specifically if sex offenders were tipped off."

During sweeps such as Operation Bluegrass Corral, officers check the addresses of convicted sex offenders to make sure they are living at their listed residences. Offenders who are on probation or parole are subject to a more extensive search of their homes by probation and parole officers, Carl said.

Compliance checks routinely turn up evidence of crimes, he said. During Operation Bluegrass Corral, one offender was arrested for having child pornography on his computer. In two other cases, which were referred to investigators with social services, children were present in homes where a registered sex offender lived.

Giving sex offenders advance warning about an upcoming check could give them time to delete pornographic images or send a child to stay with a relative or friend, Carl said.

In addition, he said, in previous compliance checks, marshals had found evidence of other crimes, such as drugs and guns.

"If you tip somebody off to the check, they're going to get rid of that," Carl said.

The documents

Included in the documents released to the Herald-Leader by the city was a letter Sheriff Kathy Witt sent to Police Chief Ronnie Bastin in which Witt asked the chief not to release the records.

"These documents, in and of themselves, have caused our office to begin an internal inquiry," the letter said. "Since the inquiry is a direct and sole result of these documents, I would ask that no one from your staff release these documents to any outside parties."

The city released the records, but its law department redacted the identities of the sheriff's deputies and the names and addresses of registered sex offenders.

The documents included eight reports from detectives who participated in the sweep.

Three detectives gave specific instances of sex offenders who said they were told about the compliance checks by deputies. Three other detectives said they did not encounter any sex offenders who were tipped off to the compliance checks.

Reports from two other detectives, David Flannery and Aundria Burkhart, were more vague. Flannery said he overheard a sex offender who said he knew the compliance checks were coming, but the offender did not specify who told him, and Flannery assumed that it was an attorney or probation officer.

Burkhart said she recalled speaking with multiple sex offenders who said a sheriff's deputy had told them about the upcoming checks, but she could not remember which offenders.

Federal checks happen intermittently, but a dedicated sheriff's task force performs daily checks on sex offenders. According to the documents, sex offenders said they had been warned by deputies during compliance checks a few days to a week ahead of the federal sweep.

A report by Detective Trevor Welch said three of four offenders living on one street "knew we were coming because they were told by a sheriff's deputy a couple days prior to our assignment."

The element of surprise

Spokesmen from the FBI headquarters in Louisville and the U.S. Attorney's office in Lexington said internal policies prevented them from confirming or denying whether they were investigating the matter, or from clarifying laws as they relate to specific cases. Carl also said he could not comment on any potential investigation.

Carl and David Beyer, former legal counsel for the FBI in Louisville, said law enforcement agencies typically don't warn sex offenders or people involved in other types of investigations to pending arrests, checks or searches because it could give the offenders time to "hurriedly destroy evidence" and it could put officer safety at risk.

"Every time we go out, we're in harm's way. That's our job and we know that," Carl said. "But if someone tips a convicted felon off ... they're prepared where we're caught off guard."

At a news conference announcing the completion of the sweep on Dec. 20, Witt said that no sheriff's deputies had alerted offenders to the sweep. She said questions from a Herald-Leader reporter were the first she had heard of the allegations.

"They would never do that. They would absolutely never do that," she said at the time. "In fact, I am shocked, because I have never heard that."

Miller said Wednesday that the sheriff's office had "no knowledge, no hint" at the time that the allegations existed.

During last month's news conference, Witt and Carl agreed that the element of surprise was instrumental to making sure sex offenders were compliant.

"It should be a surprise. It needs to be a surprise," Carl said. "We don't want them to know we're coming."

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